A New (MPAA Approved) Cover for MARIE AND JACK

Back in February we submitted our first film, MARIE AND JACK: A HARDCORE LOVE STORY to the Motion Picture Association of America (The MPAA). Since MARIE AND JACK is a film about grown-up ideas, with grown-up imagery, intended for a grown-up audience, we had every expectation that the film would receive (the dreaded) NC-17 rating. From MPAA.org:

“An NC-17 rated motion picture is one that, in the view of the Rating Board, most parents would consider patently too adult for their children 17 and under. No children will be admitted. NC-17 does not mean “obscene” or “pornographic” in the common or legal meaning of those words, and should not be construed as a negative judgment in any sense. The rating simply signals that the content is appropriate only for an adult audience. An NC-17 rating can be based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children.”

(You can read rest the MPAA’s explanation of their rating system on the MPAA website.)

We submitted the film back in February because we knew that sometime this Summer we’d need to make another run (the fifth!) of MARIE AND JACK DVDs, and we also knew that we wanted to update the cover so that it was more inline with the look of our more recent titles (The M&J design was mine, the more recent covers were designed by Peggy. You can guess at which ones I like better.)

The idea was since we were going to be redesigning/reprinting the cover anyway, why not submit the film and see if having an MPAA rating (even the dreaded NC-17 rating) changed the marketablity of our film.

Would the NC-17 rating and MPAA dingbat make our work seem more legitimate? Or would the MPAA rating make people think they were getting a watered-down, censored version of Marie and JACK. (Point of fact, the MPAA didn’t ask us to change a frame, and even said MARIE AND JACK was just the sort of film the NC-17 rating was made for.)

What the MPAA did ask us to change was the cover, both text and images, so that the packaging would be “suitable for all viewers,” and while you and I may disagree with the MPAA about what is or is not suitable for all viewers, it not your or my opinion that counts; it’s theirs. That’s the bargain you make if you want to be in their club. (Actually, I think the MPAA is best thought of as being like a Chamber of Commerce, or local Better Business Bureau. No one forces a merchant to join the Better Business Bureau, but if you do join, they rules they expect you to follow.)

The original re-design of the MARIE AND JACK cover looked like this:

(You can click on it for a larger version.)

The front cover has been redesigned to be in keeping with the look that Peggy developed for the series. The back cover is unchanged from the previous version.

The MPAA had two objections. To begin with, unambiguous nudity is not considered “suitable for all viewers” so the three photos on the upper left side were unacceptable. One solution suggested was that the photos could be cropped, or shadows could be airbrushed on to them sufficient that a reasonable person could say it was not clear whether or not the people were naked.

The MPAA also objected to the word “orgasms” in the quote from Penthouse magazine, but suggested that climaxes could be used in its place. I’ll admit this made my head spin a little, but the MPAA representative’s explanation was that while most people would probably consider our use of the word tasteful and appropriate, if they let us use the word “orgasm” on our cover, then someone else would want to splash it all over the cover in giant pink letters, and that the MPAA wanted, as much as is possible, to avoid making subjective judgments about what was and was not permissible. No doubt this was a reference to the 1997 film ORGAZMO.

The same explanation was given for their request that the back cover photos be altered: yes, most people would find our use of the nudity completely appropriate, but if they allowed unambiguous nudity on the cover of MARIE AND JACK then some other producer would want the same for their DVD packaging, claiming that their use was also “appropriate,” even if most people would find it objectionable.

The MPAA did not object to the close-up of Jack fingering Marie’s clit while they fucked in the spoon position, complete with his cock half inside her pussy that we used to illustrate the “picture in a picture” version of the un-edited, two camera love-scene offered on the DVD. Whether this is because they thought the image was it was sufficiently ambiguous, or because they simply didn’t know what they were looking at, I don’t know.

So here’s the cover the MPAA approved:

(Again, click for a larger version.)

“Orgasms” has been changed to “climaxes”, and the three back photos have been cropped or simply replace with photos that have sufficient degree of ambiguity as to where or not Marie and Jack are clothed. The close-up was removed altogether – maybe they missed it, maybe they didn’t know what they were looking at, maybe they knew, but thought a close-up of clit stroking is “suitable for all viewers” – I don’t know. Whatever the case, I don’t think it’s all-ages appropriate, that’s the standard, so we took it out. This is what the letter you get from the MPAA looks like:

The people at the MPAA have all been very friendly, and I have to admit, seeing that very distinctive MPAA dingbat on our movie is pretty nifty. But the question remains: will going through this process help us make more money? I don’t know. I think the new cover design will sell better, but I don’t know if the NC-17 is going to make much of a difference one way or the other.

As it stands now, most places that won’t show unrated films won’t show NC-17 films either. Most places that won’t sell unrated DVDs won’t sell NC-17 rated films either. In a surprisingly candid conversation with an MPAA rep last Winter, he told me “we dropped the ball when we introduced the NC-17 rating. We didn’t explain or promote it the way we should have.”

As a result, the NC-17 is sort of a no-man’s land. The only thing you get for accepting an NC-17 rating from the MPAA (aside from the chance to write the MPAA a hefty check,) is the obligation to submit your advertising and packaging for their approval.

No doubt that’s why films like 9 SONGS and SHORTBUS decide to go out unrated; not (necessarily) because the MPAA advertisement approval process is so odious, but if the NC-17 rating isn’t going to help the movie make money, who needs the hassle? In fact, the advertising and packaging on unrated movies with sexual theme tend to emphasize that they the unrated, uncensored, uncut version, even when no other version exists. In the art-house world “Unrated” has come to connote uncensored and uncompromised filmmaking.

So then why did we do it?

Well if nothing else, it’s given us a chance to experience the MPAA process, not as observers, not as critics or pundits, but as participants. Having been run through the mandatory ratings processes in other countries, I have to say I much prefer dealing with the MPAA, especially the fact that it’s voluntary. We have four other films, each unrated, each completely legal to sell or screen, and they’re doing just fine.

I’m not thrilled about the changes to the MARIE AND JACK cover, but neither am I broken-hearted. I understand why the MPAA insists on maintaining some sort of control for where and how their trademarks appear, we do the same thing here at Comstock Films. There are venues available to people who have different ideas about is appropriate or what is in good taste, or even whether or not that’s a relevant question.

In the bigger picture it’s about continuing to take risks, continuing to poke around in the places other people overlook to see if we can find opportunities. Most producers consider the NC-17 rating a stigma, a scarlet letter, but who knows, maybe (maybe) we can make it a badge of honor. We’ll play by the MPAA’s rules with MARIE AND JACK and see if it helps us. If it does, we’ll consider submitting our other films. If it doesn’t, we can always surrender the rating and go back to what we’re already doing.

Or hey wait! Maybe we’ll even redesign our packaging and make sure the words “unrated,” “uncut,” and “uncensored” appear in the biggest, pinkest letters possible! ;-)

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  1. Posted August 4, 2007 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been watching the IFC Indie Sex series, and their re-hashing of the NC-17 rating was that it started out pretty well until Showgirls was released. Soon afterwards the rating became associated with losing money. Unlike the original X rating, which had a number of Oscar-nominated films before it became associated with the post-Deep Throat pornos.

    It doesn’t seem all that necessary to me, but I think it’s cool that you went out of your way to test the waters. Perhaps the rating can be made into something worthwhile. Maybe it you might get a different response if you released a new movie instead.

    Kudos, anyway!

  2. tony
    Posted August 5, 2007 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Hello Fad! Nice to know you’re still reading.

    I think IFC’s version of the history of the MPAA rating system, and it’s explination of the problems producers face if their films are rated NC-17 is too symplistic.

    For example, the original X-rating was a self-applied rating over which the MPAA exercised no control. After all, if you didn’t want your film rated as being suitable for children, why would the MPAA care what you had in your film. Strictly speaking, the Oscar-winning films your refer to were never rated X by the MPAA, they were rated X by their respective producers.

    RE: Showgirls. In a conversation with a long-time MPAA staffer, he told me what high hopes he and others at the MPAA and through-out Hollywood had for Showgirls. Prior to that, NC-17 releases had been strictly low-budget art-house or grind-house. Showgirls was the first time a big budget film was to be release with an NC-17 rating, with a lot of pressure brought to bear by the UA for venues that were reluctant about the NC-17 to show the picture.

    Unfortunately, Showgirls just wasn’t a very good flick, wasn’t a money maker, and it didn’t end up “making the case” for NC-17 that many people within the Hollywood establishment hoped it would.

  3. Posted August 6, 2007 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Still reading, and still lamely haven’t seen one of your movies. As soon as the budget catches up I plan to start from the beginning, new cover or not.

    Even without having seen “This Film is Not Yet Rated” I had believed the original X rating was an MPAA thing. I could have sworn I saw some vintage list that contained the X-rating as though it were part of the official structure.

  4. Posted August 7, 2007 at 4:41 am | Permalink

    Pink lettering will clash awfully.

    The cover is beautiful.

  5. tony
    Posted August 7, 2007 at 8:35 am | Permalink


    You’re absolutely right. The X-rating was a part of the MPAA system, but unlike the other less restrictive rating, the MPAA never excecised any control over who could or could not use the X-rating.

    More on that in an upcoming post!

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